The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Man Project

Intelligence. Support. Honesty. Fierce love, emotional openness...these are the things women (all, I believe, over 20) have been saying they want from men. All we need to do, then, is coordinate this with what younger girls say, and see where the two overlap--this will be the generative material to attract women all your life.

Comfortable in their physical bodies. Prepared to defend their ideas and principles. Unafraid to be honest and open. Capable of total intensity, and total relaxation. Deep self-love and self-acceptance, enough to spill over to all those around him. Can walk with Alphas without intimidating Betas.

So secure that he has no need to dominate others...but God help you if you try to dominate him, or hurt the helpless. Polite to a fault, but capable of being a total kid at times.

Highly sexual--no guilt or pain in this arena. Capable of controlling and guiding those sexual urges (CRITICAL if you want to have a successful marriage. Hell...if you want a successful LIFE! Note "The mystery of sex transmutation" from "Think And Grow Rich").

Unafraid of his power. Unafraid of a powerful woman (and in fact would settle for nothing less!)

Talking to both boys and men, sons, fathers and grandfather and seeing what they ALL agree upon, will provide the generative material to gain the respect and admiration of men.

WHERE THESE TWO CIRCLES, MALE AND FEMALE OVERLAP is the generative material for a mature male human being, capable of sustaining a healthy relationship with a mature adult human female, and raising and protecting children.

Note: what does this mean for gay men? Or those who don't wish to have children? Separate from some social rituals, I can't imagine why the basic truths don't apply. Women seem attracted to most of the same characteristics that gay men are attracted to. And even if you don't WANT children, one or two of the little monsters should be safe in your care.


For the last year I've been canvassing the real MEN I've known. This means both searching my memory, histories and autobiographies, and making new interviews. These would be the kind of men boys want to be when they grow up. When they walk across a playground, the kids follow them.

When they drop their kids off at school, the mothers check them out. Little girls like to sit in their laps, and are totally safe doing so. They will be responsible financially and personally--they don't hurt women (although they are VERY much catnip to the ladies), are capable of long-term relationships. They don't lie to get laid. Ass-kickers but don't start fights. Have faced life-and-death conflict without becoming brutal or brutalized. Take responsibility for the children they have created. Are intelligent to a fault (although not necessarily intellectual). Most will be over fifty--I want men who survived the teen testosterone flush, have raised families, and are often grandfathers--these are the ones who understand what the Game of life really is, from a masculine perspective. Most of them have lost their parents. THAT grows you up pretty damned well. All are self-supporting, all generate enough income to support a family.

ᅠTheir lives should be reasonably balanced, and they should have physical and intellectual discipline, even if only moderate.

ᅠThey should be capable of being intimidating. If not physically, then intellectually or morally. They must be kind and loving. VERY sexual (if married, I should be able to SEE the air shimmer between him and his lady, and her eyes should get slightly smoky when she talks about him,)

His face should soften when he holds a baby, and must be perfectly comfortable changing diapers and playing silly games. They should have MASTERED at least one discipline. Not "good". Not "excellent." MASTERED, dammit. Life is too short for mere excellence. The price we pay at the end of it is one death. I can think of no level of success that is more than we deserve, so long as it does not impose on the rights of others. They should be teachers, or have taught men who follow him willingly. Preferably, he has raised a son to be a good, strong, gentle man. Either an Alpha, or someone who can deal with Alphas handily.

In other words, a worthy mate for a Beta OR Alpha female. Either, helpless and pregnant, should have confidence that Her Man Can Handle It, or will die trying.

These are the things I'm looking for, as I sort through the hundreds of teachers I've had. I'm creating my list now. This will be easy: I was so wounded, so hungry to understand what I was, to find a way to draw out my own masculine energy. All my life, when I've met men who struck me as being both balanced and MALE (and that means being capable of being threatening: either physically, intellectually, spiritually, and/or financially. If you can't scare/fight the wolves from the cave door [or maybe know how to Build A Better Door], the children are not safe.)

Boys want to know how to obtain and handle power. To "raise it" through all seven chakras, and "run it" through the ten steps of the Hero's Journey. To attract the kinds of girls who attract them. And to be respected by the boys of their tribe. Later, to be responsible adults without losing their childhood aliveness. And to be able to attract and hold a good woman in an honest, mutually supportive relationship, and simultaneously have the respect of men. And frankly, if men are just a little wary of him, that's fine with me. A touch of the predator is all right, if it's under his mental/emotional control. The most attractive, intelligent, and powerful women often have that "lioness" energy. What a lioness needs is a LION, not a damned dog.

I've been blessed to know a number of men who fit these conditions. Not all have had children. Not all are physical paragons. Not all are drop-dead brilliant. But all are good, and strong. All have made their mark in the world. All have taught boys to be men, one way or another. All are catnip to the ladies. All can laugh, and cry. All would stand between a woman and harm, in a heartbeat.

None apologize for their lives.

Martial Artists. Soldiers. Teachers. Therapists. Writers. Lawyers. Doctors. Business people. In traditional societies this would have been a CIRCLE OF MEN: fathers, uncles, grandfathers. When the young men of the village wanted to know what a man was, they needed look no further than the Men's Hut.

Now? Thirteen year olds get their advice from fifteen year olds. They watch cinematic images and mistake them for real life. They follow sports figures who are NIGHTMARES as men, but have advanced motor skills. Whoopdy do. That's like expecting Woody Allan to be a role model because he is a brilliant writer/director. They think sex equals love, and money equals maturity. That fear equals respect. That making a baby makes them a man.

They are wrong, and they are swarming our streets.

ᅠ have been BLESSED. God knows I needed role models like roses need rain. And I'm going to take what I learned from them about sex, love, life, and power, fitness and intellect...overlap those models, overlap that with what women of all ages say they want, and what I'll have is something I would be proud to give my son.

And if I love it, my son would love it, my teachers and mentors love it, and...well, not to put too fine a line on it my WIFE loves it...

ᅠI have the right to share it with the public. And only then.

Is there ANYTHING I've said here that raises alarm bells for anyone, male or female?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Teen versus mature values

Suzanne posted an excellent list of characteristics attractive in a man. A question: how does this compare to the list you had at the age of 15? 20? 30? The reason I ask is that unless adopting these qualities will increase their popularity with girls in their own age group, most won't do it. Or at least, the boys and men who most need a code of honor or directed values will not pay attention. The trick will be to see where the qualities younger AND more mature women overlap, and nurture those.

Other ladies (and maybe gay men?) out there: what is the contrast between the qualities you were attracted to in your teens as opposed to the ones you find attractive now? Which have changed? Which remain constant. This, I think is an important question.

"This Is It" (2009)

This Is It (2009)

Nobody cares who directed this, and certainly no one "wrote it". There is only one star, and one reason to see it: the final performances of Micheal Jackson. If you can't separate the man from his art, or can't find it in your heart to look beyond the tabloids and wonder who this human being was, stay away.

But for the rest of us, those who grew up with Micheal's music (he always felt like a little brother to me), watched him rise to the level of the first black man to escape the bonds of race, and become the arguably most popular entertainer in the history of the planet...This is definitely It.

I have a theory that even Micheal knew he couldn't do fifty shows. That, in essence, he was actually performing for this documentary. I'm not sure I mean that he knew that consciously, although it is certainly possible. There are moments when you can palpably feel his fatigue, and my sense is that it wasn't just physical fatigue from the last hour's performance. More soul-deep, the awareness of someone who grasps, quite clearly, that he somehow lost his way in life, and cannot reclaim what once he was. Just a few.

But other than Watching someone, anyone, in any field, who is as much a dominant force in their discipline as Jackson was in his is qualitatively and quantitatively different from watching the rest of humanity. There is a precision of thought and action that is simply beyond what other people experience or express. There is a quality of synesthesia, the ability to interpret stimulus in unusual ways, that simply suggests such marvels see more colors, hear more sounds, fracture time into smaller slivers, make their choices from a palate far broader than that the rest of us enjoy.

"This Is It" is about as close as we've ever been to him. He is interacting with his musicians, his dancers, his singers, and in every case, in every moment, he is telling them EXACTLY what he wants, and they are struggling to give it to him because they LOVE him. It is a simple reality, perhaps difficult for cynics to grasp. These people came from all over the world for even a chance to work with him, because they believe that it was his energy that inspired them to move forward in their lives.

We all know that Fred Astaire, the greatest dancer of his time (according to Baryshnikov) declared Jackson the greatest dancer of his. We don't need to debate this: such people are more than entitled to their expert opinions. I tend to agree if we limit the pool to western entertainers---I simply don't know what the rest of the world was doing in this sense. Singing? Something about his voice and personae cut across cultural lines like nothing I've ever seen in my life. Never ever saw an entertainer who seemed to be so loved by all quadrants of humanity. Not even sure who comes in second. And if I was/am irritated that in order for him to accomplish that he had to have a near-falsetto voice and walk so close to the edge of sexlessness that he had to constantly grab his crotch just to make sure there was still something there, well...that's my stuff. Life is what it is, and consciously of unconsciously he chose a form of protective coloration that gave him the ability to slip past the masculine sexual competition thingie that should have limited his appeal among white males. Strange. Clearly, he was operating on an energetic level above my own, and I can acknowledge that without a hesitation.

Whatever music he heard, whatever strange sun warmed that pale skin, this man was cut from the same cloth as many of the most legendary and influential artists the human race has ever produced. I like Wanda Sykes' take on what happened to him: "Micheal Jackson happened to Micheal Jackson." He had grown women throwing their panties at him at the age of EIGHT. There is simply no way he could have grown up "normal" with that. Add to that the particular time in American history, the cultural change, and you have the recipe for a talented young boy to get totally warped, without a protective family around him. We don't have to comment further on that.

What remains is a marvel. What a concert it would have been, if he'd been able to pull it off. Because his art is one you can actually watch evolve moment by moment, this is actually an important document for those of us interested in human excellence. Wounded excellence. Damaged excellence. But this level of commitment, clarity, energy and focus, applied to any discipline at all, would have produced mastery. I wondered what he had left as a dancer. Had heard that he practiced an hour a day, and personally doubted it: he seemed too frail the last decade or so. But apparently I was wrong. The quality of motion on display is almost superhuman, honestly. For a fifty year old man, his level of muscle control and separation is startling. I've never seen such a thing in a Westerner.

Look, "This Is It" is cobbled together from two hundred hours of rehearsal footage, and they struggle to find coverage of several of the numbers. He isn't singing or dancing at 100% most of the time. But what is here is like getting a CAT scan of Mozart as he composes, or Harlan as he writes, or Ali as he dismantled George Foreman. "This Is It" instantly becomes one of my favorite movies, one I'll watch a dozen times just to watch his feet, or his eyes as he plucks notes out of the air with his fingertips. What a horrible waste. What a phenomenal talent. I can't wait to see what the human race generates next...and I hope that whoever that next breakthrough performer might be, that he is better protected by those who hold his heart in their hands.


Saw an "Avatar" trailer before the movie, and for the first time felt excited. I finally have a sense of the human story inside the spectacle: a crippled ex-Marine given a chance to have a whole body again...a cloned alien body, an Avatar if you will, with which he will gain the trust of an alien tribe so that Earth can steal their goodies. Imperial Marines indeed. And apparently, he begins to empathize with the aliens...

"A Man Called Horse" and other films come to mind. There is a bunch of science fiction novels that play with this territory as well. But by letting us feel the excitement of a warrior given a chance to regain his physicality, paring it with an exotic love story and a tale of redemption, for the first time I can see the beating heart inside the Swiss watch. NOW I give a damn about the half-billion dollars of effects and next-generation 3D and CGI. Now it's starting to look like a potentially great adventure film, where the science that creates the images is a subtext for the future technology presented. I've heard it said that Cameron is the most technologically sophisticated director in the history of the medium. I don't know. I know that when a helicopter broke down on the set of "Abyss" he just grabbed a box of tools and fixed it. That he devised the underwater cameras and gear personally. That Jerry Pournelle said Cameron knew more about the space program than he did. And the guy knows writing. Yeah, I know--almost every writer "knows" they could have written a better script for Titanic, and many of them are right: but they wouldn't have had a prayer of holding the entire project in their minds: designing effects, designing shots and sound design, writing the script, working with the actors, handling the staggering logistics of a two hundred million dollar film...just boggles the mind. Cameron has given me multiple Moviegasms, broken the mold, pushed the edge. In his way, he has a place in my heart as dear as Kubrick. And after a decade, he's back.

I'm 100% ready to slap my money down.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fat, Sugar, and Control

BC Monkey pointed me toward both of these articles, which are basically commentaries on how various taste combinations motivate us to eat. Very nice. But they don't doom us to obesity. The problem lies in the way obesity has accelerated in the last decades (and I'm sorry, I don't care how you gin up the stats: I'm old enough to remember when you simply didn't see as many overweight people on the streets. Period.) And that means it isn't genetic, it is lifestyle related, and probably really took off post-WW2.

Think about it. In a pre-industrial world, people had a far greater tendency to work physically for their survival. I can think of very few work contexts in which extra fat is an advantage. In other words, if you work as hard as the next hunter, farmer, laborer, and you are carrying extra flab, you literally have to work harder, and the additional caloric expenditure helped to keep weight under control. If you didn't work as hard, you probably didn't earn as much, or catch as much, and your caloric input dropped.

One of the things I noticed in Africa was that animals in the wild didn't vary a lot in terms of their degree of fat. All the zebras were about the same. All the baboons. All the lions. In a civilized society, there is great variation in the size of human beings...and even their pets. Why? I suspect because there is no longer a link between input and output. If there was, body composition would be a matter of survival, and not emotion. There would be none of this "I don't wanna" or "my genes" or whatever. If you were less efficient, you didn't eat as much, and nature takes care of itself. This tells me that the situation is temporary (hopefully) and we're currently making the adaptations necessary to remain healthy in a world of plenty.


Suzanne, you're right, of course, that Testosterone isn't the only factor. And that all penises start out as clitorises. We're talking about both the biological origins of sexual dimorphism, and the sociological extrapolations from that biological reality. In other words: I won't go AGAINST biology, but we've got other fish to fry.

If I'm trying to help young men, I have to work WITHIN their drives, and not push against them, or they will simply tune me out. And they want to know what makes them attractive to sexy women, and how to survive the aggressive actions of alpha males. How to deal with fear, how to implement ambition. Certainly as they get older they want to know how to control their drives, create stable relationships, find self-love and ultimately, to be both strong and gentle. But males in general are rewarded more for their strength than their gentleness, so this has to be addressed first, or they will get negative feedback from both men and women.

The term "testosterone" then means both the raw hormonal cascade leading to male secondary sexual characteristics, but "masculine/male" things like fathering children, aggression, and so forth. The fact that boys started out as girls is an undeniable fact biologically, but is of no use in helping dangerous, fearful young men find their masculine identity. The basic chakras of survival, sex and power have to be grounded before you can reasonably expect the heart and throat to open...especially if those young men are growing up in a hazardous context.

And this is where I would love to have a positive input on young men growing in the inner cities, especially young black men. Telling them that they are women inside just isn't a winner, even if it is biological truth.

What CAN win is helping them feel safe, and that they have ways of ethically meeting their physical and emotional needs. Then, and only then, can you begin to guide them toward that balanced combination of honest, lethally dangerous, intellectually acute and warm-hearted that is, in my mind, an idealized "knighthood" state of masculinity. Not all males want that, of course. But not one single one of them wants to feel afraid. No heterosexual male wants to feel unable to connect with females sexually. And the pattern of men feeling disconnected from their own emotions, unable to love themselves, unable to express their true needs and more should be addressed at least partially from the social and psychological needs, and a big chunk of these things can be boiled down to:

1) What do other men respect? What keeps the alphas at bay?

2) What actually attracts women? What attracts those who are the most visually desirable?

Unless you can deal with these two arenas, I suspect that the average man just won't think you are dealing with the issues closest to his heart AS A MAN. You may be dealing with his humanity, but not his masculinity. And this will fail.

I see lotsa stuff aimed specifically at women, and have never heard anyone suggesting that the material should be modified so that it appeals to men as well. Males deserve no less respect and consideration. As I've said, I would be very, very nervous having a daughter who paid too much attention to what young men said they wanted. I would want her to actually observe what they DID, and watch the relationships that actually lasted long enough to raise a family. Look at those men and women. Learn.

In the same way, what women say they want in men, and what they are actually attracted to can be two very different things. I've lost count of the number of men who have tried to do what they heard women wanted, and ended up treated as friends instead of sexual/romantic partners. Lethal. Instead, observe what women are actually attracted to, who they actually date, who they actually have sex with. Then, note the relationships that last long enough to raise a family. Draw a line between the successful behaviors of youthful men, and how they relate to fathers and grandfathers who actually pass their genes AND memes on to the next generations.

There is enormous wisdom to be gained there. But you have to remember that both men, and women, will try to manipulate the situation so that they get more of what they want. Never forget that, get the joke, and you are ahead of the game. We love each other, but we love control even more.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A letter on masculinity and myth

A great letter I got regarding my "Lifewriting for Men" (not the title) project:
Dear Mr. Barnes,

I'm not so sure how serious you are regarding asking us for advice on your upcoming regarding masculinity project. I'd be happy to contribute my thoughts, but am unsure if I'm replying to a 'bot (or not)!

I've been reading your writing tips for something over a year now and they've been helping think about some of my own writing habits. Haven't plunked the money down for "life writing", though. Yet.

My wife, (DELETED), and I are anthropologists studying prostitution, sexuality, masculinity, sexual tourism and trafficking of women in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. You might say that thinking about masculinity is our profession, as much as writing is yours.

Looking at what you've jotted down, I'd say you have to make an early decision: do you wish to talk about masculinity in a real fashion (i.e. with some foot rooted in what science has revealed to us) or do you want to speak about it in mythopoetic fashion, a la Robert Bly's 'Iron John'?

Personally, as a man and as an anthropologist, I`d urge you to take the high road and avoid the mythopoetry. Mythical musings which essentialize man as hero or protector or whatever have a long and very ignoble history in the west. At the same time, given that you are a writer, I realize that it`s going to be difficult for you to approach this topic from any angle but the mythopoetic.

In that case...

My friend (DELETED) and I have discussed, on and off for years, the need to revinvent masculine myths and given your particular set of skills and sensibilities, you have a much better shot at doing this than most.

I would thus suggest, then, that you think of masculinity as a sort of performance, one which is open to anyone, including women. De-essencialize masculinity and detach it from sex and the Y chromosome. What is it that men - all men - DO? What set of activities, values and ways of looking at the world seem, to you, to be particularly masculine? You might want to sound out a few gay and lesbian friends on this one, btw, given that many gays and lesbians are highly sensitive observers of masculinity.

When it comes to just "ordinary guys" and their discontents, christ, I could write a book (and in fact am writing one). With masculinity, however, one needs to always tread a very narrow path. On the one hand, maculinity is generally the priviledged gender performance in our civilization and many of its discontents are, in fact, complaints regarding the relative weakening of some of these privileges. On the other hand, masculine people are not taught to express their feelings adequately and, in general, masculine complaints are traditionally hand-waved away as so much whining. Because of this contradictory dynamic, one must be aware that what may first sound like the whining of the priviledged often covers up some very deep and disturbing issues which really must be aired and dealt with.

Just uncovering what men's problems are, then, is a problem in and of itself. Feminism has a ready set of answers but, in spite of being a feminist supporter, I have serious doubts about feminism's ability to adequately comprehend men. Many - if not most - feminists borrow a victim-victimizer dynamic which is ultimately rooted in Marxist dialectical thought to explain gender. While I don't want to reject this approach out of hand, it strikes me that it has some obvious weakenesses.

For one thing, in the classical Marxist dialectic, the proletartiat is not responsible for the ethical, moral and physcial upbringing of the bourgeoisie. In the same dialectic as applied to, say, race, black people generally do not raise white people (yes, there are exceptions - some notorious, but these aren't general). But generally, women raise men and thus a very great part of what we learn about masculinity is thus transmitted to us and/or reinforced by women.

The dynamic of oppression and reaction which exists between men and women is thus more fractal and complicated than most feminists give it credit for (Camille Paglia and Judith Butler being two notable exceptions). Though I still believe that masculinity is relatively priveleged as compared to femininity, I no longer believe that said dynamic can adequately be explained or described by a simple binary Marxist dialect which stipulates a clearly dominant oppressor and a cleary submissive (however combative) oppressed.

Any REAL discussion of masculinity is going to be difficult and an exploration of the unknown (or, better yet, the unarticulated) because of the dynamic described above and will almost inevitably piss a lot of people off.

If you're understandably not willing to dive into the deep end, then I suggest you just repackage Robert Bly's primitivst happy-crappy for the gay-affirmative era and leave it at that. ;-)

Anyhow, just my two cents.


No, I'm not going to write/record something that is also intended for girls, women, gay women, or whatever. I've seen plenty of books written for women by women, understanding that women have some special needs and interests. So do men. And in this case, it is the need to define masculinity in a way that serves them and speaks to their deepest needs and desires. Listen too much to what women want, and you'll fall into the same trap that women fall into if they listen too much to what men say.

We SAY what is in our conscious minds. We RESPOND to what touches the deeper, unconscious structure. Women are just as likely to manipulate men to be docile and controllable as men are to encourage women to be sexually available. And the result is disaster. The trick, in my mind, is to create the strengths, and then round off the corners, gentle those stallions down. But the core of strength must be there, the ability to respond to aggression, to deal with fear, to build a nest. To be strong, and confident enough in that strength, to have no need to dominate. To be capable of nurturing and protecting a child, even if you have no interest in having one. Much of this stuff is just "what is it to be an adult?" But there are some differences, without which women will not respond to you, and men will not respect you.

Yes, the rules are changing, but not equally across all segments of society, and trying to pretend this is a unisex world before it actually is simply courts frustration, anger and fear. I won't interview lesbians and transsexuals about this stuff, although I'm sure they have interesting things to say. I will draw my attitudes from older men and the women who have been married to them long enough to raise a family. Where THOSE attitudes align with the fevers of youth, I will chart a path. Hopefully, what I have to say will be useful to 90% of men. That I certainly hope for. Where the rules are different for, say, gay men, I would hope there are responsible gay men who will write to that need. My suspicion is that many, if not most, of the rules are the same.

Everything else has the risk of running off the edge of the map.


The current winning title? "Things Dad Never Told Me* (*That every Son should know)"

Yes, there is testosterone there. But then, that's what we're talking about, you know.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A little assistance, Please...

I have been specifically requested to create a course adapting the 101/Lifewriting approach to MEN: male lives, raising and teaching sons/families, sexuality and ethical seduction, power relations, etc. And am almost ready to go into the studio and create it.

There are aspects of success, relationships and health/fitness that relate to BOTH males and females equally, but then there are some that frankly hit males harder, things that will trash them harder if they don't address the problems and potentials. And apparently, many of my readers feel I have something to offer here. I decided to do it: if it was, simultaneously, a trove of treasures I'm leaving for my son Jason, to be opened at Puberty if for some reason I'm not there. Simultaneously, I want it to be for all men, of any age, who feel that there is a missing piece of their inner or outer puzzle in terms of fitness/health, sex/relationships, and creativity/career/success. Needless to say if I were to get requests from women asking for one specific to them, I'd be happy to do so...but would probably co-create it with my wife.

ᅠI'd like some feedback on titles. Some examples:

1) 101 Things Father Never Taught His Son*

(because he probably didn't know)

2) 101 Lessons For Men*

(and the women who love them)

3) The Heroic Man

4) 21st Century Man

5) Manhood (a beginner's guide)

6) Advanced Manhood.

I'm looking for a title that is specific, a bit challenging, and maybe a little funny.

1) Do any of these titles appeal to you?

2) Are there others you would suggest?

3) What is the specific material you would like me to cover in such a course?


"Paranormal Activity" and "Black Dynamite" (2009)

Paranormal Activity (2009)

Wow. Made for what, sixteen thousand dollars? That isn't the catering budget for one day of a major film production. This kind of thing makes me VERY happy that the public has accepted High-Def video as a means of relating intensely 1st-Person stuff like "Blair Witch" or even "Cloverfield". If you accept the conceit, and the filmmaker has something to say, you can unleash creativity without being constrained by budget concerns. And in several cases, it's worked GREAT. This is one of them. The tale of two very normal people, Katie and Micah, who are increasingly disturbed by poltergeists, and decide to video the disturbances. What is happening to them as they sleep?

Because we rapidly believe these two, the smallest interruptions in their lives looms like a descending tornado in your typical Hollywood film. This is sweaty-palm stuff, if you let it in. And by the end of the film, when they let you have it, the average movie-goer has surrendered to the point that the very modest (but effective) effects representing the largest manifestations are seat-jumping oh-my-god level. Because you believe in the people. The most frightening movie I've seen this year. I'm going to give it an "A" for originality and resourcefulness. If the same move were a 30-million dollar star vehicle, I'd give it a "B."


"Black Dynamite" (2009)

"You can hit the streets, or the sheets. You can go, or you can come." DAMN, this movie was funny. Not consistently so, but I had more belly-laughs in the first half than I'd had in a very long time. Drags a little in the middle third, then picks up beautifully. A spoof of the 70's Blaxploitation genre starring the insanely gorgeous Micheal Jai White in a straight-faced homage to Jims Kelly and Brown, with references to more fun (and terrible) movies than you can shake a stick at, "Black Dynamite" follows the adventures of the eponymous invulnerable badass as he strives to avenge the death of his brother, leaving a trail of shattered bodies and satisfied ladies in his wake. Jeeeeeze, this was fun. As I've said, it is satirizing a genre of ultra-cheap movies, and that helps cover the fact that they had few resources to work with. But serious kudos to all concerned. If you ever loved "Shaft" , "Superfly", "Slaughter," "Three the Hard Way," or even "Enter the Dragon" there is much to admire here. If you didn't, it might be a "B-". But if you did, another "A." It's been a good weekend.



It's impossible for me to talk about "Black Dynamite" without speaking a bit about the genre it spoofs. For about five years, from about 1970 to 1975, a unique thing happened: black men were actually presented onscreen as human beings, for the only time in American history. The full spectrum was there: from clowns to saints, from cops to robbers, from pimps to pushers and from vigilantes to judges and lawyers. And they were just as highly sexual as their white counterparts. It is truly bizarre to me that you can have NO black sexuality onscreen for decades, and then if I complain about Will Smith not getting laid, someone will say "do you think it's to avoid the Black Superstud film stereotype?" What? Are we kidding? WHAT black superstud stereotype? Do you honestly mean a handful of cheap movies made thirty years ago somehow balances the endless "white superstud" stereotypes we get every single year, every single day, on every channel and at every cinemaplex? Apparently, even those fleeting images were devastating to SOMEBODY's psyche. Wow. Any black penis at all is obviously far, far too much.

And here is where "Black Dynamite" raises some interesting questions. There are two sequences one might reasonably consider sexual. One is at the beginning, where Black Dynamite is pleasuring multiple foxy ladies at the same time. And during the entire sequence, he never appears in the same shot with them. There are moaning women, and there is a bronco-riding Dynamite...but never the two together. Hmmm.

Then later there is a romance between Dynamite and a local community leader. They have one kiss...and then they cut to a hilarious animated sequence. Remember that Zodiac poster with people screwing in every possible position? That's it, and it really is funny. is also an avoidance of sexual imagery. Was it done for fun? Accidentally? Were they aware that they were avoiding a land-mine of cultural aversion? Making a statement? A commercial decision? It is so odd, and I wouldn't notice it if there weren't such a pattern. In every individual case from "I Am Legend" to "Pelican Brief" to "Bad Boys" there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for why the characters aren't sexual. It is only when you look at the range of this bullshit, for more than thirty years, that you realize you cannot listen to the explanations, and must start looking for something behind the conscious or public reasoning.

I honestly don't know. My suspicions: a combination of unconscious aversion (created by generations of clear instruction: "don't go there, or you'll go broke") and a "hey! Wouldn't this be funny?" Which would be true and utterly unremarkable if it weren't part of that damned pattern. I remember "I'm Gonna Get You Sucka"--where the lead finally got the lead lady alone. They kissed once, chastely...and the scene cut. What the hell? I mean's just painful to watch.

"Hurt Locker" and "Where The Wild Things Are" (2009)

The Hurt Locker (2009)

I first heard about this movie almost a year ago. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, it was said to be the most realistic and non-political film concerning the Iraq War. I was fascinated because Bigelow is one of the very few female directors who can handle action, and handle it well. There is, for whatever reason, one real split I've seen between male and female directors and their approach to action: male directors will move the camera during an action sequence, and most female directors seem to leave the camera in one place, and choreograph the action around it. This can lead to a sense of "static-ness" if you aren't careful. Bigelow, who directed "K-19", "Near Dark" and "Blue Steel" doesn't fall into this trap. Yes, she tends toward a more static camera (she is a very accomplished painter) but each set-up seems designed to probe the psychology of her characters under stress. There is barely a scene in any of her work where you leave the scene without new and important knowledge about her characters.

Because of the question of "why aren't there any positive images from the Iraq war?", preliminary comments that "Hurt Locker" gave a mostly-positive view of American involvement intrigued me. Apparently Bigelow had real difficulty funding her movie in the U.S., and went with French (!) funding, not even knowing if they would find an American distributer. Note something: funding for films is spread over hundreds if not thousands of funding entities across the country, NOT just "Hollywood Studios." It sometimes seems that every circle of dentists, doctors, real estate agents or heirs with some extra capital want to be in the movie business want "in" to the movie business. And trust me again: they may be MORE liberal than average, but there are plenty of conservatives among them, and if they ain't funding positive Iraq images, well...I think you need to talk to conservatives about that, and stop thinking there is some conspiracy to keep them from independently producing and releasing a film. There simply is no such thing, and there are too many avenues of distribution for something like that to work at all.

But "Hurt Locker" was praised in Hollywood, got tons of good reviews, but only a limited release...and not a hugely successful one. And lots of Oscar buzz. But the public didn't seem to respond. The film deals with a crew of bomb disposal experts a month away from rotation back to the U.S. There are seven action set-pieces, and trust me, they are unnerving as hell, some of the best war footage I've ever seen, accompanied by some truly penetrating psychological insight. I saw this yesterday at Paramount Studios, and Bigelow stated that she and the screenwriter (Mark Boal) deliberately structured the piece so that the lead character (Jeremy Renner as bomb disposal expert SSgt William James) does not change, but the audience's perception of him does. That is a lovely idea, something rarely done. And VERY rarely done this well. Does it have a political perspective? I would say that it seems more positive than negative about our involvement, but is somewhat brutal about the costs to our soldiers, who clearly are basically good, decent people trying to make a difference in a difficult situation. I would love to hear comments from some of our more Conservative friends about it. I don't think Bigelow was interested in this from anything other than an intensely personal perspective. But I could be wrong. An "A."


Where The Wild Things Are (2009)

A children's movie for adults. Spike Jonze' version of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book is rather masterful, but not entirely for children. The original book was a literalization of childhood alienation (say that four times fast), and turning it into a 100-minute film required the creation of much context and content. Sendak is a producer, and has signed off on the whole thing, so we must suppose that he approved of the direction taken by Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers. And the direction is a dark one indeed. The story deals with Max, a disobedient little boy apparently grieving over the breakup of his parents' marriage--or perhaps his father's death. Arguments could be made for either position. Running away from the sight of his mother snuggling with another man, he flees to a magical island filled with gigantic monsters with family issues. It is tempting to try to apply "Parts Party" ideas here, and ask what aspects of his psyche are represented by the various beasts, but the filmmakers are far too canny to make this a simple process. Let's just say that Max is on the edge of a growth spurt emotionally, coming to grips with death, pain, and the struggle for power within families and human hearts. And it ain't pretty, and it ain't easy. "Let the wild rumpus start!" indeed. There is definitely a point at which the whole attempt to balance the "monsters" in his heart starts going bad, and you can feel the audience's growing restlessness. There is real danger here: the monsters make it very clear that Max can be their king, but if he doesn't please them, they will eat him. And it would have been a sell-out not to bring this threat closer to the surface. Childhood is a time of wonders, but also terror at the idea of moving out of the safety of parental control into the stark terror of true responsibility and understanding. And bless them, they don't shy away from that. The last image of the film is beautiful, and heart-breaking, and mundane. The beasts are among the most magical ever created onscreen, a combination of practical puppetry and CGI that is...wonderful. Just wonderful. Not a perfect film, but a strong and honest one, I think. Jonze is a fascinating director. His inner child is strong, and awake, and slightly twisted. A very strong "B+" on this one. At times it is absolutely breath-taking.